He was perhaps an unlikely muse. But Patrick Walsh’s last visits to his great-uncle on his deathbed at the University Medical Center at Princeton, inspired him to write his first poem. The year was 1995 and Walsh was 28 years old. “‘Higher Gabriel’ is an elegy for my great-uncle, Paddy Flatley,” says Walsh, who is Irish on both sides (his mother moved here in 1959 and his father’s parents moved here in 1922). “I date the beginning of my serious writing career with this poem, inspired by re-meeting the man who I hadn’t seen since I was a child. I was stunned by the greatness and the power of the man, even though he had become a very frail 93-year-old. At one point he asked me, ‘Do you drink whiskey?,’ and he started singing ‘The Good Old Mountain Dew,’ an old Irish drinking song. In the poem, I used some of our actual dialogue. I said, ‘Paddy, how old are you?’ ‘I’m either 92 or 94,’ he said. Then he paused. ‘My death must soon be upon me.’ It was like something out of Shakespeare.”
After Flatley’s death, Walsh’s mother called Walsh at work — at the time he was bartending at Quilty’s, a restaurant formerly located on Witherspoon Street — and told him the name of the funeral home in Hightstown. “She said, ‘Heyer-Crabiel,’ but over the din of the restaurant I thought she said ‘Higher Gabriel.’ I couldn’t imagine a more perfect name for a funeral home. When I found out that wasn’t the name I kept it for the title.”
“Higher Gabriel” was also Walsh’s first published poem and appeared in 1996 in Press magazine, a prominent literary magazine published out of New York (now defunct). Since then Walsh says he has written about 50 poems, 34 of which have been published in journals including Barrow Street Literary Journal; Chronogram; Cimarron Review; the Hudson Review; the Recorder, the journal of the American-Irish Historical Society; Spitball: the Literary Baseball Magazine; as well as in journals in Ireland. He has had poems published in U.S. 1’s Summer Fiction issue annually since 2000.
On Thursday, December 7, Walsh will read from work recently published in Barrow Street at the Princeton University Store. Walsh approached the U Store, which carries Barrow Street and was very receptive to the idea. “I’m going to recite from memory, which I always do. I’m up there without a net,” says Walsh. He’ll read a selection of his own poems as well as “some of the greats,” personal favorites like Thomas Hardy, Wallace Sevens, Robert Frost, and William Butler Yeats.
Walsh was born in Queens and grew up in Woodside and Valley Stream, Long Island. His father, now retired, worked as a mechanic for the post office, then moved into automotive administration, working mostly at large facilities such as the 34th Street post office in Manhattan. Walsh’s mother, Kathleen, was a homemaker who worked in the catering industry as a waitress and prep person. “Over the years on the Manhattan dinner party circuit my mother met everyone: Truman Capote, Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, every president since Eisenhower, and Mr. and Mrs. Kissinger.”
Like a good Irishman, he tells an extraordinary tale about Mrs. Kissinger, who, he says, essentially saved his mother’s life. His mother had bought a rosebush at the A&P and while planting it cut her finger on a thorn and put a Band-Aid on it. Two days later she developed a serious fever, and the lymph nodes in her right arm became grossly swollen. Diagnosed with blood poisoning she was hospitalized and her symptoms continued to worsen to the point where her doctor said they would have to amputate her arm the next day.
That night a friend of hers in the catering business worked a party, where Mrs. Kissinger, who had gotten to know Kathleen over the years, asked where she was. When she was told the situation, Mrs. Kissinger said, “That’s ridiculous.” She promptly called a specialist in Europe, who flew to the hospital and diagnosed Walsh’s mother with an extremely rare bacterial infection. “He saved her finger, her arm, and her life,” Walsh says.
Upon graduating from St. Bonaventure University with a bachelors degree in history in 1989, where he was ROTC, he served four years in active duty at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. “My first job was an infantry platoon leader, training 32 platoons with rifles.” He then served as battalion adjutant, running personnel administration, then became the personal assistant to the battalion commander, then executive officer of a rifle company. “This was during the Gulf War and we had a tremendous amount of training for combat, though we did not go overseas.”
He has lived in Princeton since 1993. While bartending various restaurants in town he says he became “intensely interested in Irish literature” at this time and decided to apply to the masters program at Trinity College in Dublin in 1995. When he didn’t get in he took some courses as a continuing education student at Princeton, including contemporary poetry and a graduate course in the British novel. He re-applied and was accepted in 1996. “My desire to take those courses and pursue the masters was a way of polishing and strengthening my own knowledge about literature. It was the proper thing to do as a poet. And in Dublin it was an incredible luxury to study full-time something I am passionate about. The country itself was poetic, fecund, really salutary towards writing. In Ireland I wrote a lot of my poems that have been published.”
Upon returning to Princeton he worked at Corkscrew Wine Shop for three years in various capacities, including conducting wine tastings at private events and dinners. He the became a copywriter for three years at Films for the Humanities and Sciences, then spent a year and a half as a research analyst at International Business Research, a due-diligence firm. But the pull of a different kind of written word was too strong; Walsh now writes poetry full-time, and continues to do wine tastings and fre-lance writing, including a recent article in U.S. 1 on the Princeton Running Company’s Thursday night running group (“The Agony and the Ecstasy,” November 22). He lives in Canal Pointe with his girlfriend, Elizabeth Protage, who works at PNC Wealth Management.
His days are split into three with “the three R’s,” he says, “reading, writing, and running, often in that order.” Walsh ran track and cross-country in high school and college and has competed in 10 marathons, including most recently the Dublin Marathon on October 30. He says his best run was the Boston Marathon in 2004, where he came in 290th. “It was very, very hot that day. I like warm weather.”
In fact several of Walsh’s poems are set in the summer. “Summer is my favorite season and has been since childhood. I went to an all boys’ Catholic high school that was very strict. Summer was an incredible collective sigh. When you’re very young a summer day seems endless.”
Walsh sometimes composes poetry while running. “I’ve written a lot of poetry in motion, whether out running or out for a walk. I might share that a bit with Wordsworth. A poem I wrote ‘Pitchers and Catchers,’ is three stanzas. I wrote it three days in a row, on three successive runs, one stanza per day.” If he composes while running, says Walsh, when he gets home he writes it down. “But most of the work really gets done while running; I recite or whisper under my breath.” He only works on one poem at a time. “When a poem comes along, everything becomes second priority. I’ve had poems that have kept me up ’til 3 or 4 in the morning.”
While his great-uncle may have been his first muse he says now a poem can strike at any time. “I don’t have a schedule for poetry. If you’re open and receptive there’s poetry everywhere. It doesn’t have to be pastoral or bucolic. There’s poetry in the city and the streets and in man-made things.”
Though he has an impressive track record in having his poetry published, Walsh says his “dream is to be in the New Yorker. I send them a poem once or twice a year. At any given time, I have poetry out at about for or five places. But the New Yorker is the Holy Grail.”
Patrick Walsh, Thursday, December 7, 7 p.m., Princeton University Store, third floor events area, 36 University Place. Walsh will read his own poetry, including work published in the Barrow Street Literary Review. 609-921-8500.